KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The killing in Afghanistan (search) spirals onward, undermining U.S. claims of success in pacifying the country with less than a week to go before an historic experiment with democracy — direct presidential elections.
The deaths of three Afghan soldiers and two militants over the weekend — barely noted in news reports — brought to at least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press review. The toll includes about 30 American soldiers.
With Afghanistan three years removed from the brutality of Taliban (search) rule, President Bush (search) has acclaimed the Oct. 9 presidential vote a beacon of hope for the Islamic world, and a prelude to even more tricky balloting slated for January in violence-plagued Iraq.
But the tally of dead in Afghanistan — a haven of tranquility compared with Iraq — is an indicator of the task facing both the U.S. military and whomever becomes Afghanistan's first directly elected president — most likely the American-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai (search) — to consolidate a shaky peace.
The number of dead was drawn from a review of hundreds of daily stories by The Associated Press since January 1. The actual toll is believed to be significantly higher, since many killings in remote areas are not reported.
"Nobody relishes figures like that," said Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan. "I think we've only just begun in terms of a permanent and lasting secure environment in Afghanistan."
Afghanistan's first post-Taliban vote will draw the world's attention to Kabul, the battle-weary capital being transformed by a building boom as many Afghans bet on peace after more than two decades of horrific war.
The focus of the continuing insurgency lies in the south and east of the country, where regrouped Taliban rebels and other anti-government groups are expected to mount coordinated attacks before or on election day.
Western intelligence reports seen by AP warn of militants slipping over the border from Pakistan to attack the United Nations and polling stations in and around towns like Kandahar, the former Taliban capital.
Some also talk of possible car-bomb attacks, others of attempts to hide explosive charges in fruit carts — a tactic already used to tragic effect with the slaying of 14 children in Kandahar in January. The Taliban claimed it was planning to target passing American patrols.
"For sure, we are expecting some casualties," said Talatbek Masadykov, the U.N. official in charge of a swath of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar. Most foreign aid workers have already left the city because of the heightened threat of violence.
There were fresh signs Sunday of militants on the move.
U.S. and Afghan forces fought suspected Taliban near Spin Boldak on the Pakistani border, killing one rebel and capturing 16, said Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. No American or Afghan troops were wounded, he said.
On Saturday, rebels killed two militia guards at the home of a former senior official in Uruzgan province, said police chief Rozi Khan. A third soldier died when troops came under fire as they tried to flee with a suspect captured during the battle. The prisoner also was fatally wounded, Khan said.
The attacks continue despite the predominance of militants among the reported casualties.
Based on AP reports nearly half of those killed in just over nine months have been militants.
The list of those killed consist of: 461 militants, 257 Afghan security force members, 160 Afghan civilians, 46 aid and reconstruction workers, 30 members of the U.S. military and three members of International Security Assistance Force.
Officials at the Afghan Interior Ministry and presidential palace were not available to comment on the figures.
Military officials and foreign diplomats say militants still are able to slip back and forth across the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier, making it hard for the 18,000-strong U.S. force and its Afghan allies to destroy them.
Meanwhile, a government offer of amnesty to former Taliban willing to end their resistance has seen hundreds of former fighters released from Afghan jails but has failed to produce any obvious political gains.